McKibben’s Pitch

There’s something to be said for making the pitch look like this. But really, the enemy is ourselves, isn’t it?


  1. But, its all broken. I stopped at around 0:39, where he's musing on the "obvious" reasons why people would be prepared to take action. And I quote: "faced with the spreading of plague of drought, flood, and failed harvest are ready to take action".

    But none of this has happened to any meaningful extent. You can argue about the statistics, and about individual events, but most people in the West - let's say, more than 90% - have not been inconvenienced in any way by any of these things.

    So if those are the reasons McK proposes for people being ready to take action, why does he then leap on the Oil Companies as the Evil Enemy? The obvious answer is that he isn't thinking: he's just repeating the kind of groupthink that "works" amongst the Nice People that he talks to.

    Have you got a better answer?

  2. There is a concept a friend of mine, Colin Park, and I came up with in conversation some decades ago called "fooling the sheep". This amounts to meeting the lies of those advocating irresponsible policies with lies that advocate what responsible policies would be if the general public were capable of understanding the actual balance of evidence. One could say that the focus on severe events which is now canonical among activists is along those lines. That's certainly close to Roger Jr.'s position and I take it yours.

    I was in a conversation with activists just day before yesterday wherein I talked about this and warned of confirmation bias. These, let me insist, were intelligent and well-intentioned people. When I said that the evidence for increases in severe events is rather marginal, not as apocalyptic as made out to date, they seemed to a man very defensive about it. I think to some extent they are obeying what the "communication specialists" are telling them - focus more on what is effective than on what is true.

    On the other hand, it isn't false. In this part of the world it is very common to run into people for whom the two years of Atlantic hurricanes culminating in Katrina was a very real personal event. Was this climate change? Clearly it didn't turn out to be part of a simple trend; after that terrifying period the Atlantic went to sleep entirely. Nobody much cares about the enormous uptick in East Pacific hurricanes this year - the one that managed to wander into Arizona (and is arguably implicated in the floods we just saw in Austin the last two nights) is very good news for every American who doesn't actually try to live in a floodplain. The small resort city of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico be damned.

    Similarly everyone from Texas to California and up to Colorado is being affected by an enormous drought. Is it unprecedented? Not yet. But it, on the other hand, does match expected trends. Can we blame it on climate disruption? No, not in the sense that it is "rolling a thirteen", an event that could not have happened in the undisturbed climate.

    Great swaths of Texas and Kansas have lost the cattle reading industry. Beef prices are up, and the absurd habit of treating ground beef as a staple food is under threat. Probably all for the best for the world, but not a happy situation for the ranchers and their communities.

    Maybe not watering a lawn is less than catastrophic to you and me, but some people find lawnlessness devastating. Oh, well, maybe that will lead them to step up to face what is needed, but most of the lawns of the Southwest are abandoned, and some places have lost municipal water altogether.

    Natural environments are visibly declining everywhere, except in places (looking at you, England) where there aren't any. In particular alpine pine forest decline in North America is not subtle, anywhere from Alaska to Colorado. A prime mover here is generally accepted to be improved viability of insect infestations - all the trees' defenses against beetles are tuned to cooler climates.

    The Russian fires, the Himalayan floods, the Australian heat waves, and so on...

    I don't think that it's possible to dismiss these events altogether.

    There is a crisis in motivating people. So there is a tendency to go with what works. I may be being counterproductive when I say publicly that these effects are right at the margin of detectable and it would;t be wholly astonishing if they go away, just as the burst of Atlantic hurricane activity did. On the other hand, unlike most people including scientists that I talk to, I don't expect regional climate shifts to be monotonic. I have no mechanism to propose for the outlier Atlantic hurricane seasons of '04 and '05 nor the east Pacific season occurring now, but to presume that such things are equally or more likely in an undisturbed climate is as indefensible as the contrary. We simply don't know. But we do know that the two hurricanes that did do any damage recently, Sandy and Irene, were extremely large in area in the fashion of Katrina, and had unusual damage patterns.

    Clearly this sort of hemming and hawing doesn't motivate people. Maybe John McCarthy was right - people will not be motivated until the damage is palpable.

    But while this or that oddity may not be attributable, the whole array of them now looks to be outside the norm. Not as spectacularly as the activists would like us to believe, nor as indefensibly as the denialists would. The truth, for a change, lies in between. But in a locally non-monotonically wobbling climate, I certainly expect an increase in odd events and peculiar seasons.

    So the question is whether the damage has started. I think the time has come where we can say that it has. So "spreading plague" while dramatic seems defensible to me.

  3. Micheal,
    Normally I pretty much agree with you, but in this case your framing of the discussion is wrong and disastrously so. (I shan't bother with William's frankly idiotic post - I don't find compelling logic in what amounts to an argument of "sure the kitchen's on fire, but it's still pretty nice here in the living room, so I'm not going to bother listening to McKibben's argument - la la la I can't hear you".)

    Your framing is "But really, the enemy is ourselves, isn’t it?" That's correct ONLY in the most superficial possible sense - AGW is caused primarily (or maybe even wholly) by human beings and you and I are human beings. But how is that in any way helpful? My "thing" is public policy and I'm a recovering policy wonk not a climate scientist, but it seems pretty obvious by now, given a steady flow of academic work being published in the realms of political science, public policy and economics that public policy decisions in the United States are nowadays effectively directed by and for the benefit of a remarkably small population at the upper range of income and power - and NOT by "ourselves". Thirty years ago, such talk seemed overblown and silly - now it's pretty much a fact of life. By way of one example, I would point out the recent work of Gillens and Page - they show rather compellingly that in almost every instance in which the interest and desires of the bulk of the U.S. population and those of the financial elite diverged, the elite's wishes prevailed in the public policy that was actually enacted. (One can add in Piketty, Saez,

    Sure, 'we" humans prefer comfort to discomfort, and "we" humans in the U.S. like our cars and iPhones and flatscreens and other "stuff". And that creates some social inertia. BUT that doesn't mean that there are NOT enormous economic forces pushing for their own financial interests in ways that directly harm the planet, the rest of humanity, the broader national interests of the U.S. and (frankly) their own long term economic interests. And under the current political structure, they will get their way - full stop.

    There are plenty of people desperate for a way to solve the climate problem, but (for the most part) they are not in the elite that is driving the policy (among "our" billionaires there are a lot more Koch and Adelson wannabes out there than there are Tom Steyers - keeping their own bottom line firmly in view when flooding the campaign process with dark money).

    But what those folks can't stand is having the spotlight shown on what they're really doing. As far as I can tell, after a great deal of thought about the history of American politics and public policy, the ONLY way this trajectory will ever change is to pursue exactly the path that Bill McKibben is pursuing - direct mass action intended to create such a ground swell of public support that finally rips the veneer of respectability off folks like the Kochs and the Exxons of the world, who have ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into tilting the system for their own benefit, and make is morally unacceptable to pursue the current "brown agenda". That sort of thing happened in the Progressive Era under T. Roosevelt, the New Deal Era under FDR and in the Civil Rights Movement, and it's needed again. It is possible that our only hope is that a sufficient degree of actual democracy still exists in the U.S. to make that outcome possible. If our fate is left to the "Masters of the Universe", we're all going to be cooked as climate disruption rachets up.

    To say that "we" are the problem is to glibly dismiss the reality that McKibben is pointing to - as in Orwell's Animal Farm some of the animals are a whole lot "more equal" than the others, and they are driving the rest of us to a disastrous future UNLESS enough of the rest of us get together and stop them through direct public actions such as the Climate March.

  4. Nevertheless, they are giving us what we want. We prove that by buying it. Yes, they spend a lot of money convincing us that that's what we want. Such a strategy is quite successful, look at the pharmaceutical ads. But if we tuned that out and didn't want what they sell, they'd behave differently.

    But, that aside and possibly as a surprise to those who read my comments, good things will not happen while corporations are people, the period that is recognized for short term capital gains is a mere one year, and Citizens United is the law of the land. Two of those three are Supreme Ruler Court decisions.

    Focus people!

  5. I tend to agree. Once the surface temperature stopped rising in the early 21st Century the political wheels started spinning in the mud. The answer was the campaign to convince people "extreme weather events" were attributable to global warming (meanwhile the IPCC says that´s not clear).

    There´s also an interesting attack on "big had oil companies", blaming them for the political failures. But the real reason isn´t "big oil". The real reason is the lack of economic energy alternatives. As long as the alternatives cost more, they don´t gain real market share.

    This takes us to the "price of carbon" issue. And the transient climate response, which serves as one of the main ingredients for the carbon pricing. Which explains the nature of the climate wars in the scientific arena. And I have a little bit to add to the mix. Oil companies are incredibly well organized, have cash, and have the organizations needed to set up science teams to deliver very well written papers arguing for a lower transient response.

    Some of them have worked on the problem since at least the 1990s because they were keen on understanding Arctic ice conditions (they want to get to the Arctic oil). And yet I haven´t seen any activities to push forward a lower TCR. This tells me that in general oil companies really don´t worry about the climate wars, nor do they care if there´s a carbon tax (as long as its applied to everybody evenly).

    Oil companies are mostly worried about where to find oil. And they aren´t finding it. Their future is grim, it´s sealed because we are running out of oil, not because a group of environmentalists want to stop burning fossil fuel.

  6. Fernando,

    There´s also an interesting attack on "big had oil companies", blaming them for the political failures. But the real reason isn´t "big oil". The real reason is the lack of economic energy alternatives. As long as the alternatives cost more, they don´t gain real market share.

    This takes us to the "price of carbon" issue. And the transient climate response, which serves as one of the main ingredients for the carbon pricing. Which explains the nature of the climate wars in the scientific arena. And I have a little bit to add to the mix. Oil companies are incredibly well organized, have cash, and have the organizations needed to set up science teams to deliver very well written papers arguing for a lower transient response.

    Wow! Do you really not see the contradictions in those two paragraphs? Might the reason for "the lack of economic energy alternatives" be that "Oil companies are incredibly well organized [and] have cash"? And aren't you the guy saying (at ATTP's, for example) that pointing out that fossil-fuel billionaires wield the power of their billions to maintain a favorable political environment, in part by funding specious science, amounts to conspiracy theorizing?

    Do you actually believe anything you say in your comments, Fernando?

  7. mal adapted, the oil companies don´t have to drop down to using made up science when they can put together science teams to blow the doors out of anything you guys can put together (how much do you think it costs to hire a climatologist and give him a super computer to play around?).

    The key is that it´s easy to put together a very solid scientific argument to take apart the extreme views. And once we get into the 1.5 degree C TCR range all your political moves will be weakened. THe fact that I don´t see such moves being made tells me the oil companies don´t really care to oppose you one way or the other. Why? Because they got a very valuable product to sell, you are wiling to buy it, and they know oil resources are running out anyway.

    All your divestment campaigns are misaligned with reality. And the really sad thing is that you are so isolated you can´t understand why you will fail. Believe it or not some of you do have my sympathies. Hell, my eldest son is one of you. But I try to guide people to become much more effective. These conspiracy theories you have don´t work.

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  1. That's assuming the current consensus hypothesis where mankind is responsible for the warming and the planet plays second fiddle to man is valid over the long term. If cooling sets in, all bets are off.

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